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For the Democratic women’s political action committee EMILY’s List, 2012 looks at first glance like a banner year: Money is pouring in, the group is backing a bumper crop of female candidates, and Republicans have helped thrust women’s issues front and center.
But for all the talk of another “Year of the Woman” such as the one that in 1992 saw a record number of mostly Democratic women elected to Congress, EMILY’s List is facing one of the biggest challenges in its 27-year history. Long a pioneer in the world of big-money fundraising, the group now faces competition from a new generation of well-funded conservative super PACs. Many female voters drifted from Democrats in 2010, and they remain up for grabs.
“We are going to get outspent,” EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock acknowledged in an interview. “In some races, we could get really outspent in numbers that we have not seen before. I’ve got to believe, though, that if we have enough money to work the program that we have to educate the voters, that we can win these races.”
The group, whose acronym stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast, has raised an impressive $24.3 million for its PAC in this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, ranking it among the top five PACs.
Membership hit 1.5 million last month, a threefold increase since the beginning of 2010, driven in part by a House GOP agenda that Schriock says has sent women flocking to her organization. EMILY’s List backs Democratic women who support abortion rights, and it’s endorsing a record number of candidates this election, Schriock said. These include 10 women running for Senate and close to two dozen running for the House.
House Republicans have sponsored bills that would redefine rape and defund Planned Parenthood and have blocked pay equity legislation, even as controversies erupted over conservative opposition to contraceptive mandates in the 2010 health care law. A turning point for EMILY’s List, Schriock said, was a House hearing on the health care mandate featuring all male witnesses at which Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) famously asked, “Where are the women?”
EMILY’s List quickly spotlighted Maloney’s quote in a cable TV and Internet ad to capitalize on a moment that Schriock likened to the seminal Anita Hill hearings. EMILY’s List has revamped its website, ramped up its use of social media and conducted exhaustive research and focus groups to take the temperature of
“Women are a very important part of Democratic victories,” said Rep. Allyson Schwartz (Pa.), who is the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s recruitment chairwoman. “But this year, in particular, there is such a sharp contrast on where Republicans stand on issues of importance to women. … That could well make the difference in this election.”
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake concurs that women will tip the balance in 2012 — but she said they could tilt either way. Despite a gender gap that has historically favored Democrats, female voters sided with Republicans by 1 point in 2010, according to Lake’s research. That election was also the first election since 1978 that saw a decline in female representation in the House; only one woman was elected to the Senate.
“In general, women voters will be the undecided voters,” Lake said, adding that the economy remains paramount. “They’re leaning Democratic, but they are still up for grabs.”
Republicans, too, are fielding a strong crop of female candidates, GOP organizers said, including four running for Senate. The notion that issues such as contraception will drive female voters is exaggerated, said Julie Conway, executive director of View PAC, which backs Republican female candidates.
“Women care about taxes, women care about health care,” Conway said. “Women care about all the same issues men care about.”
EMILY’s List’s traditional fundraising model, which was built largely on “bundling” low-dollar contributions on behalf of female candidates, also presents challenges for the group in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling to deregulate political spending. In 2002, according to the CRP, EMILY’s List was the top-grossing PAC, with $22.7 million in receipts.
But the group’s PAC receipts this year, along with the $1.3 million the group has raised for its Women Vote! super PAC, pale next to the tens of millions of dollars raised by a long list of GOP-friendly super PACs, who in this election have dramatically outraised their Democratic counterparts. Among super PACs, EMILY’s List ranks 25th in receipts, according to Political MoneyLine.
Schriock has responded by leveraging the group’s longtime knack for organizing and coordinating progressive groups. The group takes credit for beating back a challenge in the previous election to Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in part by coordinating a $4 million campaign of outside spending alongside labor and environmental groups.
This year, EMILY’s List partnered with the Service Employees International Union and the Democratic-friendly House Majority PAC to help Democratic Rep. Suzanne Bonamici win a special election in Oregon. EMILY’s List has also teamed up with Majority PAC and other Democratic-friendly super PACs to spend $1 million defending Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) against an onslaught of $6 million in spending by conservative outside groups.
“EMILY’s List and our partners in the party need to make sure that women are mobilized, that they have the information they need and that they get to the polls,” Schriock said. “We’re going to have to do that underneath a tsunami of misinformation that is going to be coming from untold sources of Republican money. We’ve never seen an election like this.”